Ending up at the most momentous Duke-Carolina football game in a generation was no coincidence, no accident, no confluence of otherwise unrelated circumstances. These two programs willed themselves to this point.
North Carolina could have given up this season, could have packed it in after a narrow loss to Miami, but the Tar Heels regrouped, reloaded and resurrected their bowl hopes.
“When you’re 1-5, it can go a lot of different ways,” North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said. “A lot of different ways.”
Duke could have lost confidence after losses to Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh – this is, after all, a program with one November win in the previous eight seasons – especially considering how poorly the defense played in both games, giving up 96 points.
There was no straight and narrow path for either team from start to end, from opening bell to Victory Bell. One of these teams is going to win, and one is going to lose, but both deserve credit for being in this position.
“What it ended up being is two teams that are on a win streak, that are playing as well as anybody in the league coming together, and it happens to be a rival game and it happens to be on a holiday weekend,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “They were able to write their own story and write their own challenge, and that’s what this ultimately is.”
The Tar Heels had farther to go. They were done. Cooked. Finished. Left at the curb with the recycling. Beaten at home by East Carolina. Only one win in their first six games. Needing to win five of their final six to become bowl-eligible. And yet here they are, with five straight wins and a chance to knock the Blue Devils off their novel new pedestal, injecting new life into an old rivalry.
“I was just wondering if we were even going to win at least five games,” new quarterback Marquise Williams said. “It was so tough. But now that we’re rolling, we just think about being 1-0 and trying to finish this season strong.”
Fedora’s mantra became “1-0.” Just worry about the next game. Worry about the next week. Old-school coaching stuff, but it worked, starting with wins over Boston College and N.C. State. The Tar Heels haven’t slowed since.
The wins kept coming. They lost their starting quarterback and most veteran leader, Bryn Renner, yet never missed a stride. Young players grew up. Older players grew stronger. Confidence grew bold.
“I never doubted it, actually,” Fedora said. “I knew if we continued to get a little bit better, if we continued to believe, hold this team together, they keep working hard, have great attitudes, there was no doubt in my mind. That’s what they’ve done. Focused on being 1-0 each week, they’ve given one more inch, they’ve found a way.”
This Duke renaissance could have deflated at just about any point along the line, blown at any seam. The defense lost its mojo. The starting quarterback went down. The Blue Devils continue to spot the opposition early leads.
Yet Duke, like North Carolina, has stayed the course, and now faces the prospect of even greater rewards: An undisputed Coastal Division title and berth in the ACC Championship game. Not bad for a team picked by the media to finish last in the Coastal, a program that hasn’t won this many games since World War II.
This didn’t have to be the best game in this rivalry in a generation. It is because these two teams have come so far to make it this way.